For the past 22 months, the lives of most ordinary Britons have been consumed by the events of the pandemic. Merely keeping health, worrying about loved ones, making sure there was a job or at least the means to make ends meet, was a constant worry for most folks.
Thankfully, the United Kingdom was the first nation to approve vaccines for use against coronavirus, and its subsequent roll-out became one of the success stories of these past two years. But now, with a backlog of five million patients waiting to be treated for other complaints and a new surge of cases of unvaccinated Covid people plus others whose initial two jabs have worn off, are putting pressure on the National Health Service once more.
Winter is also a time where flu and other chest infections take their toll in normal times, making Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments in hospitals extremely busy. Of course, these are not normal times, and the effects of coronavirus is to inflict damage on the lungs of those it infects. Now, with winter’s onset, those patients are also needing medical attention.
And given that the coronavirus pandemic meant that patients with other illnesses or conditions were unable to receive the treatment they needed, those patients are now sicker — and in need of more urgent treatment now. Having had their treatments postponed because of coronavirus, those treatments can’t be delayed any longer.
So yes, more than ever Britain’s creaking hospitals are feeling the strain. When there was pressure before, one release valve was to move elderly patients with a chronic medical condition to care homes where care more appropriate to their age and infirmity could be provided, rather than taking up a bed in a busy ward in a hospital in need of space.
Thanks to Brexit, a quarter of the care home staff who looked after Britain’s old and infirm patients in public and private facilities have returned to their European homes. And right now, at a time when the demand for care home spaces has never been greater, there are approximately 100,000 job vacancies unfilled, according to the umbrella groups that represent the sectors. With pay rates as they are, few Britons are willing to step forward and do the heavy lifting and cleaning that the sick and elderly require.
Consider then, if you will, ambulance drivers and paramedics. They are the first line of medical response, there when there’s an emergency, when urgent medical attention is needed. Too often they are the unsung heroes who are quick to respond, provide immediate emergency treatment, stabilise the injured and sick, then transport them to hospitals.
Well, they too now are at breaking point. Consider that if they work a 12-hour shift and might, in normal times, respond to an average of eight calls during that time, now once they take a patient to those backlogged A&E departments, they must wait for their patient to be admitted.
But these are not normal times.
In one instance in the northwest of England, a crew had a patient in the back of their ambulance for 23 hours. In Wales, a wait of between 8 and 12 hours is not unheard of, and the entire response system is creaking to the point where roughly half of code red calls — the most urgent calls of a life-and-death nature — meet the required eight-minute response time.
Anecdotally, there are tales of people calling an ambulance in the morning, calling every hour to ask where it is, and it arrives 12 hours later. And yes, patients are dying.
In some regions, Army personnel have been brought in to try and alleviate the pressure. In theory, having more staff driving more ambulances is a positive. The reality though is that it means those Army drivers and their vehicles are also in the waiting lines at hospitals trying to have their patients admitted.
For those less seriously ill and indeed of a visit to their medical practice, coronavirus has meant that the doctors’ surgeries have largely stopped one-to-one consultations. The surgeries are busy dealing with those with Covid who aren’t quite so ill, or have ailments and conditions exacerbated by the onset of winter and its effects on the sick.
It is not unheard of for patients to call their doctors office for an entire day, either waiting to speak to a person at the other end of the phone, and even then appointments are as rare as hen’s teeth.
The government recently urged doctors to increase their one-to-one visits, but their representatives have panned the idea. Currently, there are some 6,000 immediate vacancies for doctors in Britain and the government wants to push at least 20,000 new doctors through the system.
But here’s the catch, supposing a patient does indeed get to see a doctor at their local practice, even getting a blood test can take weeks. And if more consultations are needed from specialists, then appointments can be months in the offing. If you’ve a dodgy knee and need a replacement, then you’ll be hobbling around for about two years — longer if the backlogs that have been built up because of Covid aren’t dealt with in the coming months.
Is private medical care the answer? Roughly one-in-10 Britons have private insurance that allows them to fast-track treatment, so there would seem to be room for many more, if they can afford it. Problem is, applying for private insurance means answering questions about your health. And that dodgy knee that needs replacing? That’s a pre-existing condition, which would preclude treatment.
Given all of the above, is it any wonder that patients are losing patience? No. I’m just surprised that it hasn’t translated into a lack of support for the government in opinion polls. As things stand now, the Conservatives stand at 36 per cent support, with Labour only marginally ahead at 37 per cent. But with winter’s onset, the medical crisis will take its toll in the polls.